Monday, June 15, 2020

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Some of you are mentally well-adjusted creators who have never tried to use your art as free therapy and it shows.
-My interpretation of a passage in this book

Somehow, I ended up with THREE copies of this book? How??? Two were gifts (one from co-worker, one from family) and one I bought on sale in the Kindle store, so clearly, the fates really, really wanted me to read this book. Which I did, finally. You're welcome, universe. Also, thank you, universe, because it turns out that THE ANIMATORS was exactly my cup of tea. Reminiscent of authors like Hanya Yanagihara and Donna Tartt, it falls into a genre of fiction that I have lovingly coined Literary Soap Opera™ and no, that's not a bad thing. I love my stories and this is a particularly good one. Mel and Sharon are both independent animators who met in college and bonded over their disturbed personal lives and working class lives in a Jeff Foxworthy-like interpretation of the south. Starting out as struggling artists, they eventually become key figures in the indie art movie scene.

Gradually, they become incredibly successful, their gritty, grungy autofiction sort of like cinéma vérité for cartoons. But of course, this is Literary Soap Opera™ and success does not walk hand in hand with happiness. Mel has many problems, including substance abuse and mother issues, and Sharon has a stroke that leaves a permanent impression on her body. Also, Sharon is haunted by a terrible and traumatic incident in her childhood that has left an indelible mark on her psyche. As they confront their inner demons, the bond between them grows more dependent and toxic, even though the two of them rely on each other not just to create but also to lean on, like kindred souls.

This closeness pushes away their partners and families, as they always come before each other, and their friendship is fueled by this relentless drive to create and fuel all of their passion and energy into their creative projects, even at the cost of their own mental and physical health. But with that closeness comes doubt: Sharon, our narrator, never feels like she's enough next to the vivid, larger-than-life Mel, who's brash and daring in a way that Sharon feels like she never will be. And even though they love and understand each other in a way that no one ever will, sometimes they find each other infuriating, and that artistic jealousy and insecurity might just become their undoing.

So yeah, I was trash for this book. As an author, I totally related to that push-pull need to work, work, work, exhausting all limits. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I would sometimes stay up all night writing. There was one day where I wrote about one hundred pages in a twenty-four hour period with, like, no sleep, and then edited and published the book in under a month. Was that healthy? No. Did my brain care? Also no. I saw from the reviews that some people took issue with this manic, dysfunctional portrayal of the Tortured Artiste™ and while I understand the criticism of that trope, there is also an element of truth to it. I think a lot of people are driven to create because they're seeking a means of catharsis for their personal demons. Maybe not all people, but some. I certainly used writing as an outlet for that; and there is something cathartic about that.

There was a post I saw a while ago, admonishing people who glorify an artist suffering nobly through illness for the sake of creating and YES, hard yes, I completely agree. Seek help if you need it and don't suffer in silence while using your work as a crutch. That was something young me had to learn the hard way, when I was feeling isolated and depressed. Looking back on some of my earlier works, I think it shows up-- they have a desolate, claustrophobic feel. When I did stop writing for a while, I wondered if I would never write again-- kind of how, as Sharon tries to recover from her depression and trauma, how she will ever function on her own with her changed circumstances. Art does not necessitate suffering; your art might slow or change with your state of mind, but it will return. My writing did change over time-- I think for the better, but it's definitely different. Because I'm different. So in a way, I think you could interpret THE ANIMATORS both ways: you could see it as a cautionary tale or a note of hope, depending on how you feel about the characters.

I think it's a little of both. You can't let your inner demons roam unchecked, and the worth of what you create is not and should not be measured by how much you've suffered through it. Even separated from that, I think THE ANIMATORS is a brilliant portrayal of the intensely passionate (but platonic) relationship between two women, and all of the joy and suffering and tragedy that comes with loving and living by art. I loved all the passages about drawing style and cartoons. I loved their brainstorming sessions, and how Sharon's work shaped the way she thought about things. She thought in panels, I think in narratives. It was so relatable, even if it was different. If you enjoy literary works about messed-up people and are also passionate about art (or a creator yourself), I think you'll really love this as much as I did, with the caveat that these women are not to be emulated.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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